Poor You! (Literally.)
September 23, 2010 by Legal Tease
Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin. She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories. She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days—which is to say most days. But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for. So, when we went out to drinks last week to celebrate, I was expecting her to be ecstatic. I was expecting her to have quit the firm within five minutes of getting the offer. What I wasn’t expecting was three hours of listening to her waver, almost to the point of tears, about whether she should take the job.
I kept pressing her—what was it about this job offer that was making her so torn? The (awesome, non-billable) hours? The (cooler) people? The (less mind-numbing) work? Finally, after four Belvedere-tonics, she leaned across the table and lowered her voice.
“It’s just…I’m just afraid…” She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.
“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…” she whispered, “…poor.”
The offered salary of the new in-house gig? $120,000 a year.
And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend—a worldly, educated, smart, able person—truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right.
Now, if you’ve been spending much time in and around the legal interwebs lately, you’ve heard the controversial argument that earning $250K a year in this country makes you a lot of things—except “rich.” You either agree (Greetings to you, JD/MBA types living in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco!) or you vehemently, vehemently disagree and think that Elie anyone who thinks otherwise is a naïve, classist prick (Greetings to you…people living everywhere else.)
But the Caitlin question–the $120,000 Question—has nothing to do with the plush, glittering bar that you have to hit on your W-2 to feel rich; it has to do with the scabby, feces-strewn line that you have to stumble across in your mind to feel poor. And, if you’re a young, professional type living in New York City today making $120,000 or less, you’ve probably got some scab residue on those scuffed shoes, my friend.
Think about it: What does feeling “poor” mean to you? No, really, before you lunge for my throat, just step back for a second and ask yourself: What would actually make you feel “poor”? Worrying about how you’re going to pay your rent? Living in a small, crappy apartment? Being a perpetual renter instead of a buyer? Feeling that you can’t afford to have kids? Not being able to eat the kind of food you want on a regular basis? Never taking vacations…at least not ones that involve planes? Or, to step back even further, would it just be feeling that you can’t keep pace with your friends and neighbors? Feeling that 90% of the people you come across on a daily basis, no matter what you may have in the bank, are way out of your financial league?
Well, if you’re a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 a year, there’s a good chance this describes you to a tee, for better or worse.
Now, fine, let’s clarify a couple of things: I’m not saying that a person making $120,000 a year in New York is living on the so-called poverty line, collecting food stamps and selling blood and semen to pay for heat. Living in poverty and feeling poor are not the same thing. I’m also not saying that if someone who’s now making, say, $12,000 a year, suddenly made ten times that, that they would consider themselves poor. I’m saying that feeling poor is on par with feeling, say, ugly or untalented: it’s relative. And egalitarian posturing be damned, the feeling can be justified even when you’re making six figures—especially when you’re living in New York City.
Not convinced? Let’s look at some actual numbers.
Again, we’re dealing with a single lawyer living in New York City making $120,000. Let’s get taxes and other payroll-type fun out of the way and you’re bringing home around $5,100 a month in salary. Now take out about $550 a month for fixed-cost utility-type expenses ($160 a month for cable/internet, $120 for phone(s), $180 for heat/electricity, $90 for a monthly Metrocard). Now, student loans—because remember, we’re talking about a lawyer here. Law school ain’t cheap, kids. Let’s use Caitlin as an example: After about three years of Big Law paychecks and paying down as much debt as she could swing every month, she still has about $80,000 of her original $180,000 in loans left to pay off. Let’s have her keep on paying, say, $1000 a month on that (which, by the way, means she’ll still be on the hook for about the next decade or so). Now we’ve got about $3,550 a month left to spend on rent, food and…everything else. And here’s where the “poor” part comes in.
See, being not-homeless in New York City is expensive. Like, $2700 if you want to live by yourself in a semi-decent studio in a semi-decent building in a semi-decent neighborhood expensive—$3200, easy, if you want a small 1-bedroom with the same specs. Now, please hold your commentary, Guy Who Lives In a Walk-Up Studio In Outer Brooklyn For $750 a Month. When I say “New York City,” yes, I mean Manhattan. Why? Because, even if you won’t admit it to your friends back home in western Ohio, you know it as well as I do: It’s just better. It’s the heart of the city, it’s the heart of the action. It’s why you move to New York. It’s the fantasy. And just like no one fantasizes about driving a 1983 Camry when they grow up, no one aspires to live in a tenement in an outer borough. Now, sure, is the premium you pay to live in the same apartment in Manhattan that you could get in the Bronx for 1/4 the price soul-strangling and ridiculous? Of course. Would you still pay it if you could? Hell, yes. And that’s the point. If you could. Which, unless you have a fabled rent-controlled illegal sublet or $30–$50 grand a year ready to spend on rent alone, you can’t. And this “can’t” group includes our girl, Caitlin—who, based on the math in our example, now has the choice between (1) eating every day and living in an overpriced dump in a crappy part of town or (2) not eating every day and living in an overpriced dump in a slightly-less-crappy part of town. Oh, and in our little hypo, she still hasn’t bought anything yet this month.
And just to drive it home, we have to remember that Caitlin, a finance lawyer, works with Big Law lawyers, bankers and hedge-fund types all day. Almost all of her friends are Big Law lawyers or bankers or hedge-fund types. Now, calm down, they’re not the famed super-rich of New York, the Gossip Girls or Bloombergs or anything even near it; but, even the ones who’ve only been working for a few years tend to make $120,000 in a matter of months, if not weeks. And with the non-existent discretionary income that Caitlin will have left every month in our example so far, she won’t be able to eat at the same restaurants that they do, shop at the same stores, drink at the same bars, share the same social experiences. After a while, she might even stop hanging out with them, because she’ll be tired of begging off before dinner, tired of being embarrassed that she can’t afford to keep up with them, even once in a while. Even though she fully knows that she’s a smart, accomplished, self-sufficient person, she might to start to feel like she’s coming up short, financially, compared to 90% of the people she comes into contact with in her life—again, in her life. At the very least, she might start to feel like she’s in a different financial league than almost everyone she knows. In other words, she’ll start to feel poor.
Now, is she poor? Well, not by any national standard, no. But again, we’re not talking about national standards. We’re not talking about objective metrics. We’re not even talking about plain old vanilla envy—of just wishing that you have more than you have because you’ve seen someone else who does (because if we were, I challenge you to find literally one sane person in New York City—hell, in any city—who doesn’t fit that bill). No, we’re talking about comparing yourself to your peers. And when you’re a former Big Law lawyer in New York City making $120,000, most of those people will have more money than you do, plain and simple. That doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, or a loser, or better or worse than them—or even that you’re unhappy. It just means that you have less money to play with than they do right now. And sooner or later, unless you’re the least self-aware person on the planet, you’re going to notice it.
So, if you’re reading this and making scads less than Caitlin’s $120,000 but you feel genuinely happy, satisfied and successful with your financial relationship to the world, good for you. Truly. You’re luckier than you may realize. But don’t tear down Caitlin—or anyone else—for having the nerve to confess to feeling “poor,” even if she makes more money than you, or most Americans, will make this year. That doesn’t make her a horrible person. Or an idiot. Or a classist. That just makes her honest—and hardly alone.
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